Change is constant for the Atlanta Hawks.
In 2013, Mike Budenholzer was hired as head coach. Then, in 2014, scandal rocked the franchise. Then–general manager Danny Ferry took an indefinite leave of absence after his racially charged comments on a conference call were made public and he eventually agreed to a buyout in 2015. Owner Bruce Levenson put the franchise up for sale in 2014 and it was sold in 2015 to a group led by Tony Ressler.
Meanwhile, then–assistant general manager Wes Wilcox was promoted to GM and Budenholzer agreed to take on the title of president of basketball operations, which gave Budenholzer final say on all transactions.
Until this week, at least: Wilcox has left his post as general manager and will transition into a new role as special adviser to ownership, and Budenholzer relinquished the title of president of basketball operations, though he’ll maintain a voice in basketball personnel decisions. The Hawks will hire a new executive to run the basketball operations department, with both Budenholzer and Wilcox reporting to that person.
Maybe the front-office shake-up is for the best. Budenholzer was put in the difficult position — to paraphrase legendary NFL coach Bill Parcells — of having to buy the groceries and cook the meal. Since he was hired in 2013, he’s been at the helm of teams on a title mission. The Hawks won 60 games and went to the Eastern Conference finals in 2015, and seemed to be on their way to building a long-term contender, but after several seasons of early exits in the postseason, everything was thrown for a loop. It couldn’t have been easy for him, as a coach first, to pull the plug on these players and rebuild.
Coaching is hard enough on its own, never mind carrying the responsibility of making the final call on all personnel decisions. One bad trade or free-agent acquisition can cripple a franchise, while one missed draft pick can set a team back for years. Team-building isn’t easy, which is why so many front offices across the league are expanding to have more voices in the room.
It’s not impossible to juggle both jobs, but it’s not easy. Historically, Red Auerbach, Don Nelson, and Pat Riley have done it and found success. But there’s been a long list of failures too, including Rick Pitino, Isiah Thomas, and John Calipari. Presently, the only truly successful examples across North American major sports are Gregg Popovich and Bill Belichick in the NFL. Doc Rivers and Stan Van Gundy are the other two most prominent examples in the league today, and neither of them has seen his team rise to greater heights: The Clippers were a 56-win team in Vinny Del Negro’s final season before Doc’s arrival; the Pistons have only one playoff appearance (which ended in a sweep) in Van Gundy’s three years at the helm so far.
But this annual routine of front-office restructuring can’t be what Coach Bud thought he was signing up for. Budenholzer left the Spurs — the league’s model franchise for both stability and sustained success — for the Hawks in hopes of building a Little San Antonio in Atlanta. But their front-office instability has more in common with the Kings than the Spurs. Unsurprisingly, then, the product on the floor has begun to decline, too.
They lost DeMarre Carroll to Toronto, after the Hawks (wisely) chose Paul Millsap over him for financial reasons, and since then, they’ve been at the crossroads, figuring out their future. But instead of any concrete decisions, they’ve delayed it all by creating a revolving door. They listened to offers for Al Horford, then he left, and they signed Dwight Howard. Out went Jeff Teague, and they handed big-money extensions to Dennis Schröder and Kent Bazemore. They traded Kyle Korver, and reportedly looked to move Paul Millsap “sooner rather than later.” Instead, they kept him, and then got bounced in the first round. Now, with Millsap’s free agency looming, that revolving door could be going for another spin.
Ressler told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution the Hawks will make “every effort imaginable” to retain Millsap, who says he wants to be back. Budenholzer wants him back, too. “Without a doubt what is best for us is to keep Paul. We’ve got to do everything we can to make that happen,” Budenholzer said. “Free agency is not an easy thing for the player or for the organization. There are a lot of things that go into it.” You said it, Bud. There are a lot of factors. And from Millsap’s perspective, it’s not hard to recognize patterns, and when it might be time to look elsewhere: three of the Hawks’ core players left over two consecutive summers, and in Millsap’s four years with the organization it has undergone a significant upheaval. It’s hard not wonder if the trend will continue with Millsap deciding to follow Carroll, Horford, and Teague out the door.
Budenholzer missed his chance to blow it up and the franchise is already suffering the consequences. They were average this year, and they’ll have no cap space if they re-sign Millsap (and Tim Hardaway Jr.), crippling their ability to make necessary improvements. The franchise’s turmoil could lead its remaining star from its 60-win team to find the grass is indeed greener on the other side. If Millsap leaves, Dwight Howard will be the Hawks’ leading frontcourt presence — and we know how that goes.